John McCain, True to His School
Episcopal High Alums Give a Former Classmate High Marks
By Ken Ringle
You needed to remember the seedy antiquity and genteel arrogance of the place, the cruelty and brotherhood of shared incarceration; the inspired hilarity and the tortured loneliness and the night the cockroach population reached Malthusian flash point and marched en masse on Blackford Hall where McCain lived.
They were the same sickly brown as the ancient linoleum. The entire dorm floor was moving.
Episcopal, McCain has said, may have been the closest thing to a proper prep school for his years of imprisonment in Hanoi.
"I'm a victim of Episcopal High School," he told the 60-odd classmates and alumni of the Alexandria prep school who turned out for a $250- to $1,000-a-plate brunch at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City. "The principles embodied in the school, and especially in its honor code, are those I've tried to embody in my own life. I haven't always succeeded . . . but I've tried."
It may not be immediately obvious how a ruthless hazing of first-year students as "rats," or how unceasing athletics, academic rigor and arcane traditions could inculcate an obsession with honor. But at bottom, those present stated repeatedly in separate interviews, honor was what the EHS experience proved to be all about.
Not that many students recognized it at the time.
"My initial entry into EHS society was rough," McCain writes in his best-selling autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers." "I was one of the smaller boys in my class, a fact that upperclassmen, annoyed by my obdurate refusal to show a rat's humility, took to be further evidence of arrogance on my part."
"If he wasn't elected 'worst rat,' he should have been," remembers the Rev. Jonathan R. Bryan of Alexandria, one of the hosts for yesterday's event. Bryan, who was a year ahead of McCain at Episcopal, remembers the future presidential candidate as a "very feisty kid . . . strutting and slouching around with his coat collar turned up" and what former EHS headmaster Richard P. Thomsen recalls as "a distinct air of 'Don't Tread on Me.' "
As for the famous McCain temper, which his recent political critics have sought to ascribe to some dark emotional trauma in Vietnam, there was much merriment among his former schoolmates about the absurdity of that charge. "They should have seen him at Episcopal," said Julian Baker, EHS '57, who flew up from Raleigh for the event. "I don't ever remember him picking a fight, but if you messed with him, God help you."
"Punk" McCain's "magnetic personality has won for him many lifelong friends," declared his senior write-up in the 1954 yearbook. "But as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with."
McCain's competitive passion at EHS was best remembered by those present yesterday in terms of his wrestling career, which saw him win his high school letter in his first year--a highly unusual achievement--and later hold for two years the school record for speed in pinning opponents. Invitations to the event arrived complete with the official photo of the 1954 EHS wrestling team and the caption, "Do you recognize the presidential candidate?"
"When I got to Episcopal, I was 14 years old and weighed 89 pounds and I was terrified," remembers Virginia Del. Clifton A. "Chip" Woodrum (D-Roanoke), one of McCain's junior wrestling teammates, reached by phone at his home in Roanoke. "Here were all these huge guys threatening and screaming at us, led by this really vicious redneck head monitor from Georgia. And I really thought they might kill us. But then I saw McCain was a little guy, too, and he was giving it right back to them. He was a year ahead of me, but he had survived the ordeal and kept both his dignity and his sense of humor. So I thought, 'If he can live through it, I can, too.' "
Those of us assigned as rats to periodically wake up McCain and his dorm mates can report that the future presidential candidate slept in his underwear and always specified that he be awakened at absolutely the last minute before the last bell summoning students to breakfast.
He was famously incorrigible, mocking the school's coat-and-tie traditions with a decaying sport coat and fetid black knit tie worn with Levis and motorcycle boots. Equally disdainful of school rules, he was wont to "skip off" for after-hours adventures in Washington involving, at the very least, cigarettes and beer. His senior class picture shows the future scourge of big tobacco dangling a cigarette from his mouth, overcoated against the weather in "Burma," a forbidden off-campus hideaway in the woods across Quaker Lane.
In a culture of raging testosterone, where a posture of studied toughness was both cultivated and mocked, McCain was elected during his senior year in the annual yearbook poll as runner-up for "thinks he's hardest." The previous year, he had been runner-up for sloppiest; the year before that, runner-up for "freshest rat."
What did all this have to do with honor?
The Rev. W. Brown Morton III, EHS '56, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Va., wrote to McCain of being struck with "your confidence to be yourself when who you were was not a perfect match with some of the others around you, and your ability to communicate without words an innate sense of personal dignity."
Morton, a Democrat whose EHS preoccupations with architecture and aesthetics were about as far as possible, in a student body of 250, from McCain's scrappy athleticism, could not be present yesterday due to his ecclesiastical duties. But in a letter read to the gathering, he said he perceived in McCain a person who would "reestablish the global honor and integrity" of the presidency by acting "on your own convictions." And he saw in him "a person who knows from his own suffering that the Lord was speaking the truth when he said 'Fear not.' "
Morton's sentiments were echoed by two Republicans, Randolph Washburn, EHS '35, of Sonoma County, Calif., who flew in from the West Coast for the event, and George Bruce, EHS '53, who flew up with his wife from Houston.
Bruce, a retired insurance executive, remembers McCain from his EHS years principally as "a feisty little rat throwing water bombs" around the dormitory. But though he talked in detail about his enthusiasm for George W. Bush's tenure as governor of Texas, Bruce said Bush "isn't ready to be president. McCain is." The difference, he said, is one of character.
The candidate himself voiced his appreciation to the two former EHS headmasters present for their tireless work to straighten out "several generations of unruly and undisciplined young men." The process, he said, "took effect on some and not on others, and I have no illusions about on which side of the boundary I lie."
He said he scarcely passes a week without remembering the late William Bee Ravenel, the much-revered head of Episcopal's English department, who had fought his way across Europe with Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army in World War II and sought repeatedly, and not always successfully, to instill life's lessons in the future naval officer he saw in McCain.
When he returned from his years as a prisoner of war, McCain said, Ravenel was the only person with whom he felt he could discuss what had happened to him. But he learned Ravenel had died, and that discovery was the most difficult thing he had to face when he came back.
"I still want to talk to him," McCain told the group. "I would like to ask him what quality he detected in me that remained unrevealed to others."
But the magic of Episcopal in those days, said Bryan, interviewed by telephone before the brunch, was the fierce crucible it became for the values the school held with such tattered and antique pride.
"There was a wonderful sense of trust and principle in a community governed by a code of honor. It was a beautiful thing to live in that community where you were cherished and encouraged to do your best," he said. "But on the other hand, there was this overweening and incredibly oppressive sense of authority that made you want to lash out against it to avoid being crushed. It was a fascinating dynamic. It demanded much and it yielded much."
His classmate McCain, Bryan said, is "very much a product of that dynamic. I had to give a lot of thought before agreeing to serve on the host committee," he said, "because my politics are generally somewhat left of center and don't exactly coincide with his. But in the end, I come down on the side of character. What else can you do?"
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